3D printing technology using DNA can now unmask the identity of criminals by creating 3D printouts of their faces, not just revealing hair color, eye color, gender or racial background.
The use of DNA profiling for criminal investigation has been around for a while, enabling law enforcement authorities to arrest and detain offenders based on DNA alone.
However, this process yields useful but limited information that can reveal a suspect's identity, such as eye or hair color, gender or race, but police work will have to fill in the blanks.
Now, researchers have devised a way to use DNA to determine not only clues to a criminal's identity, but his or her actual face.
In a research study published in the journal PLOS Genetics, forensic scientists identified the genes responsible for facial features of a sample population from three locations:
- The United States
- Cape Verde
Then they sorted out what are called single nucleotide polymorphism (SNPs) – which are responsible for the different characteristics found in human faces.
They also scanned the faces of the volunteers using 3D images in order to create a large database of faces with different variations.
They marked 7,000 data points on the digital face to account for deviation of traits, such as the degree of how much noses are flatter, eyes wider or cheek bones higher.
The researchers then cross-referenced the facial markers they identified from the 3D images they took against the 24 SNPs in 20 genes that were linked to facial structures.
A computer software program then integrated the data to come up with a human face. Using a DNA sequence, the computer can print a 3D model of the face of the person who is the source of the DNA material.
The results are approximate but gives a reasonable resemblance to the actual face.
While genes are useful, they cannot take into account the subtle variety of human faces, some scientists say. But the research findings may result to some immediate benefits, law enforcement in particular.
If fully implemented, police can use the technology to use DNA found in crime scenes and use a 3D printer to create mugshots. Faces can narrow down the pool of suspects and they are easy identifiers not only for law enforcers but also for the general public.
By looking at 3D mugshots, witnesses can better identify criminals even though there is no actual picture of the perpetrator.
Present methods include looking at sketches and computer composites to identify potential suspects. But this technology uses genetics to come up with more accurate 3D models of faces.
Aside from fighting crime, this forensic technology can also help identify victims of disasters and accidents.
The researchers say more facial types and genes from a larger sample is needed to make the results more reliable. More specific results will help increase adoption by forensic investigators of this technology which is still in its nascent stage.
Facial reconstruction is proving to be more difficult than it appears. Another group of researchers is also involved in a separate but similar study involving Chinese volunteers.
“One thing we’re certain of: there's no single gene that suddenly makes your nose big or small,”
Kun Tang, a biologist at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences in China, told the Huffington Post. Both studies dealt with small sample sizes but the complexity of facial morphology is evident.
Still, with advances in genomics, software programs and 3D printing technology, making 3D mugshots using possibly even scant DNA may soon be reality, taken straight from episodes of TV crime dramas. That would herald a new era in digital forensics and crime fighting.